3 March 2017
Sphero was founded in Boulder, Colorado in the United States by tech entrepreneurs Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson – partners who had the idea to fuse robotic and digital technology into immersive entertainment experiences. “Sphero began the connected play revolution in 2010 by creating something unlike anything – and we never stopped,” said Mr Bernstein.
Their first product was Sphero, an app-enabled robotic ball, which got off the ground thanks to an initial US$1 million in angel funding achieved through the Boulder-based start-up ecosystem Techstars.
Further investment funding, totalling US$80 million to date, and a partnership with The Walt Disney Company, further got the ball rolling – bolstered as well by the decision to establish a base in Hong Kong, which would act as a bridge between the company’s US headquarters and its manufacturing base in the Chinese mainland.
“[Coming to Hong Kong] was a ‘boots on the ground’ idea,” explained Josh Savage, General Manager of Sphero Hong Kong. “Our goals were to improve communication, develop products faster, to leverage the factories and supply capabilities and to improve quality.”
The Hong Kong office was set up in early 2014, and its role has rapidly evolved, thanks to the ease of doing business in the city and its deep pool of technical and professional talent.
“The Hong Kong operation has been extremely successful,” Mr Savage said. “We’ve been expanding year after year and now are up to 14 staff, and currently hiring for another three roles.”
The idea initially was to keep the company’s R&D functions in the US. “However, this too is changing,” said Mr Savage. “This year, we have started doing product R&D in Hong Kong as well.”
The company also attends the HKTDC Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair, Asia’s largest toy event, to build connections with potential partners.
Making Learning Fun
Sphero’s products, which now number eight plus a line of accessories, are designed to be educational as well as fun. Its SPRK+, for example, teaches children the basics of programming, robotics and mechanics. Sphero and Ollie, its own-branded products, are robust, connected robotic balls that kids can play around with outside, performing tricks controlled by a suite of 20 mobile apps.
The company’s most notable product is their BB-8 App-Enabled Droid, a mini-version of the film character, produced in partnership with Disney following Sphero’s participation in the Disney Accelerator programme. The Droid now comes with an optional Force Band, a wearable device giving children “the power of the Force” to control the toy using gestures.
Sphero products are sold in more than 80 countries worldwide, through major distributors, including Apple, Toys “R” Us, Amazon, and local stores in various markets. More than two million of its robots have been activated since 2010, and the company’s workforce has grown to 185 permanent staff, including 170 in the US, 13 in Hong Kong, and two in the United Kingdom.
Gets Kids Moving
Mr Savage believes Sphero is filling a market niche by developing the next generation of toys.
“We understand that kids today will have iPads from the age of two,” he said. “We try to give them an experience where they at least can get to go outside to play and be active, taking technology with them.”
Connected toys are also designed to hold their attention. “Traditional toys are often discarded after the first day. Our connected toys are designed to be upgraded with new features and games added to the app, which keep them fun and engaging,” Mr Savage said. Parents must agree, he adds: “We get a lot of adults as customers, too.”
Sphero Hong Kong